(Pocket-lint) - The smartphone market is almost completely unrecognisable from just five years ago. Back then the Windows Phone platform was tightly controlled by Microsoft and only available on (since deceased) Nokia phones.
But we're talking about an era when BlackBerry made its own keyboard phones that used the company's own operating system. Now BlackBerry, with its DTEK60, uses the touchscreen Alcatel Idol 4S with an Android operating system as its flagship. It's a big, yet decent phone.
So the perfect device to save a flagging Windows 10 mobile then? Alcatel seems to think so with this variant. But is the Idol 4S in this form really worth anyone's time?
Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 review: Design
- 154 x 75 x 7mm, 149g
- Metal frame design
- Glass front and rear
We first got a glimpse at the Alcatel Idol 4S at the beginning of 2016 at Mobile World Congress (WMC) in Barcelona. We've since seen exactly the same build, materials and shape in the aforementioned BlackBerry DTEK60 and the Vodafone Smart Platinum 7. In short - it's a familiar design, to say the least.
It's probably no surprise that this Windows version looks almost exactly the same as its Android-based counterpart. The only real difference is its Type-C port in the Windows version (not Micro USB), as used for charging and transfer.
The Idol 4S's front-and-rear glass panel build has an interesting reflective property where any light that hits it forms multiple shards of light that centre in on the fingerprint sensor. Those glass surfaces have subtle curves towards their edges, so look elegant, but it's not quite enough to stop the phone feeling like a big shiny block in your palm - albeit a better one than if it was all completely flat lines and sharp right angles.
So while the finish and design is undoubtedly polished - those gold metal edges add a hint of luxury to the obsidian-like black glass - there's no getting away from the size of this device. It's a big phone, even by 5.5-inch phone standards.
Because of the size, the power button lives just out of one-handed reach at the top of the left edge. Well, it's perfect if you're left-handed, but nigh-on impossible to reach with your right. Oddly, the more-convenient-to-reach button is the camera launcher on the phone's right edge, just below the volume rocker.
Then, as you may have spotted, there's the massive protrusion that is the square camera bump on the rear. The aesthetic appeal is certainly up for debate, but this bump also brings an obvious disadvantage: it means the phone will not sit flat on any surface without wobbling about. Even worse, combined with those shiny glass panels, it will happily slip off the arm of a sofa onto the floor with seemingly zero encouragement.
Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 review: Display
- 5.5-inch, 1920 x 1080 resolution
- AMOLED display
AMOLED technology and Windows 10 on mobile are made for each other. By default, the background on the phone is black which comes out completely dark on an AMOLED screen, because the screen technology can illuminate individual pixels for precision blacks sat next to bright whites.
The technology's other strength is bright, saturated colours which, again, Windows 10 is full of. Colours are punchy and vibrant, while contrast levels are very high.
The 5.5-inch Full HD screen on the front of the Idol 4S is, therefore, both big and beautiful. On a phone this large the Full HD resolution does start to look a little bit rough around the edges compared to some other flagships - particularly around fine text, which Windows 10 uses aplenty - but it's only really noticeable when you get very close to the screen.
As for gaming and watching video, the scale of this phone easily delivers enough real estate to enjoy all your favourite titles. That partners with stereo front-facing speakers to create a truly immersive experience. This is something you just don't get on most phones which typically fire audio out of the bottom edge.
Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 preview: Software
- Live tiles and searchable app list
- Cortana and Continuum are both included
- Mobile VR headset and apps come with the phone
- Windows 10 app store still lacking
You could be forgiven for thinking the Windows mobile platform was dead. After Microsoft decided to cut its losses on its smartphone hardware business, it seemed a no-brainer that the OS would die with it. But, seemingly, that's not the case... yet. Windows 10 for mobile lives on to fight another day.
Like Windows Phone of old, the main home screen of the Idol 4S is filled with Live Tiles that update with quick snippets of information when you get notifications. You can resize them, re-arrange them and pin any app you want to this Start screen.
To some, having all this information on one screen may appear a little too busy, but there's something rather pleasing about its convenience. Not having to swipe down for a notifications shade or open an app to see what the latest updates are is a time saver.
For those unfamiliar, Windows 10 for mobile brings many of the features across from the desktop operating system, including Cortana voice assistant, which is like Microsoft's competitor for Apple's Siri and Google Now. You can use it to search for things on the web, or set contextual reminders based on locations and meeting dates.
You can even train Cortana to recognise your voice by going through a relatively short set up process. By repeating a handful of preset phrases, Cortana learns how you say them and can be summoned at any time. Ignores other people's voices, unlike most of the assistant's competitors, is a bonus.
Interestingly, there's also Continuum - Microsoft's fancy word to describe its ability to be used as a desktop computer - albeit a limited version than normal. Plug the phone into a hub, or wireless connector, and you have a light version of Windows 10 delivered to a monitor, powered entirely by the phone.
Like the Android version, the Windows model of the Idol 4S ships with a VR headset and a handful of VR games. Sadly, the experience is about as poor as most mobile VR systems. The 1080p screen isn't sharp enough, while the motion and animations aren't quite smooth enough to make it a pleasant experience. It's more a fun additional feature than a genuinely good experience.
While we like elements of Windows like the searchable app list, the customisable Live Tiles, and the easy typing keyboard, Windows still has one main issue on mobile: apps. Or rather, the lack of them.
You can get a number of popular apps though. Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, BBC iPlayer and more are there for your choosing. But, like a lot of the other experiences, they load slowly or - in the case of iPlayer - don't fit properly on the screen so that controls elements are missing, or part of the video is cut-off by the persistent on-screen buttons. That's the Windows 10 experience on mobile: it just doesn't have the development base and probably never will.
Despite the fact that there are now more official popular apps than there used to be, there are some glaring omissions like Snapchat, and some of them just don't work well at all. Which leads us nicely on to...
Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 review: Performance
- Snapdragon 820 processor
- Octa-core (4x 1.8 GHz & 4x 1.4 GHz)
- 4GB RAM, 64GB on-board storage
While the Idol 4S shares the same name as its Android-powered counterpart, the Windows 10 version this Alcatel phone has received a welcome specification bump. Rather than a middling Snapdragon 652 processor of Android, which has a tendency to stutter for some tasks, here there's a Snapdragon 820 processor.
This is the same processor found inside devices like the OnePlus 3, Sony Xperia XZ and the Stateside versions of the Samsung Galaxy S7. Even Google's latest Pixel phones have a slightly tweaked version called the Snapdragon 821.
In short, as far as mobile processors go, what's inside the Idol 4S is one of the best available right now.
It was a surprise to us, then, that a lot of what we tested on the Idol 4S with Windows seemed slow. There wasn't stuttering, frame-dropping or pausing as such, but so many actions took a couple of seconds - if not more - before kicking in to gear.
Using the fingerprint sensor on the back to unlock, for example, was noticeably slower than trying the same function on the Android-based (but physically identical) BlackBerry DTEK60. There's no vibration feedback to let you know the fingerprint has registered on Windows 10 either - just a delayed unlocking of the phone a couple of seconds later.
Likewise, downloading apps from the Windows Store was a long process compared to both Android- and iOS-based phones of a similar flagship spec. Launching apps - especially third party ones - is laboriously slow. We lost count of the number of times we gave up on Facebook, after staring at the blue loading screen for at least 30 seconds. It's 2016 people.
Other built-in functions and tasks are generally fine though. Launching the web browser, Cortana, Outlook and such didn't provide any really noticeable delays (notice that they are all Microsoft products). Zipping in and out of the settings menu and app lists were smooth and snappy too. It's just a shame that a phone with 4GB of RAM and a high-end processor doesn't feel fast all the time.
For the media hungry, you'll be pleased to know the phone comes equipped with 64GB of storage space as well as microSD card support to expand that further.
Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 review: Battery life
- 3,000mAh battery
- Quick Charge fast-charging
Inside, alongside all the other gadgetry, is a 3,000mAh battery - which is claimed to be capable of handling 20-hours of use. In real-world terms, that means you'll have some battery left over at the end of a full day, but won't get too far into a second day before needing to charge again.
In our testing, the phone quite comfortably powered through a full day's use with some juice left over. Indeed, even very heavy users should comfortably finish a work day with some battery remaining for the commute home with this Alcatel.
Not forgetting that the Idol 4S is also Quick Charge 3.0 enabled, so it'll refill in a relatively snappy manner. Just 30-minutes at the plug can come in great use.
Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10 preview: Camera
The results from the Idol 4S are, unsurprisingly, similar to what we found with the newest BlackBerry DTEK60 phone: it can produce some decent, evenly balanced pictures with natural colour in good lighting conditions. When the light start to drop things get a bit ropey - as they do with so many other smartphone cameras.
However, like a lot of the Windows 10 experience, using the camera is a rather slow process with this device. Focusing on an object often took two or three tries, then when the shutter was pressed there was notable delay in response.
And because there's no optical stabilisation (OIS) of any kind, if you move even slightly between pressing the shutter and the photo being taken, you're left with a slightly soft and blurry image.
There's no doubting the hardware capability of the Idol 4S - we've seen it at work several times on Android. What's disappointing in the Windows 10 version is the lack of optimisation from a software standpoint. With its slow loading - and that's despite a hardware boost - it can be quite an off-putting experience.
Having launched initially as a T-Mobile locked exclusive, the Idol 4S running Windows 10 is available unlocked direct from Microsoft in the States and Canada for $470.
For those who want a seamless experience between their PC and mobile worlds it might still make sense to buy a Windows-based phone. Likewise, if you're invested in the Windows 10 mobile ecosystem, the Idol 4S might make a nice update to a tired old Lumia.
However, with its restricted availability and the limited number of quality apps compared to Android and iOS, it's difficult to recommend the phone with this software to most consumers. We're not sure there's any saving Windows 10 on mobile now.
Alcatel Idol 4S with Windows 10: The alternatives to consider
The DTEK60 fixes a lot of the Windows-based Idol 4S's shortcomings. It has a higher-res Quad HD screen and runs Android Marshmallow with BlackBerry's own custom apps and software. It's faster, snappier and has tons of reliable apps available too.
The OnePlus 3T - like its predecessor - is a brilliant, fast and well-made smartphone loaded with a clean and lightweight custom version of Android. It has the same screen size and resolution as the Idol 4S, but has a more solid construction and a more powerful Snapdragon 821 processor. What's more, it costs less.
For something a little more expensive, and for what is considered the best supported app ecosystem, it's hard to look past Apple. This year, the best of iOS is found in the iPhone 7 which, although much smaller than the Idol 4S, performs incredibly well across its many features. Battery life isn't as good though.